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The geopolitical implications of a NATO liaison office in Japan

A Nikkei Asia report on May 3rd suggesting the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is planning to open a liaison office in Japan was promptly followed by a rather non-committal response from Oana Lungescu, the NATO spokesperson, but still caused quite a stir. Considering how the alliance’s diplomatic instruments and NATO-Japan relations have developed over the years, news that this is being discussed among allies and with Japan should not cause much surprise. But if it does come to fruition, it will help to clarify some geopolitical trends concerning NATO and the Indo-Pacific. 

Contrary to the claim that this office would be ‘the first of its kind in the region’, there is nothing new in NATO having liaison offices, even outside the North Atlantic area, including in Asia. They roughly fall into three categories. Offices in New York and in Vienna coordinate NATO business with the main multilateral security organisations to which its members belong, the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation, respectively. The second type of liaison office, as NATO has had in Georgia since 2010, but also in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Moldova (since 2017), supports the implementation of NATO partnership projects and practises public diplomacy to inform citizens about the alliance. Such offices contribute to the process of preparing countries to become NATO members. In the case of Ukraine, for instance, NATO has maintained a Liaison Office and an Information and Documentation Center in Kyiv since the 1990s.

The third type of NATO liaison office, which has a regional scope, is probably more relevant for imagining what the Japan office could look like. It is not quite correct that an office in Japan would be a first in Asia, as the NATO Central Asia regional liaison office for enhancing dialogue and practical relations with five Central Asian partners was hosted in Tashkent, Uzbekistan from 2013 to 2017. Another example of this type is the NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) Regional Centre in Kuwait. The ICI was set up in 2004 to promote NATO security cooperation in the broader Middle East region, with countries including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and with selective participation by Saudi Arabia and Oman. The Nikkei report indicated that the Tokyo office would serve not only and not even principally NATO-Japan relations, but NATO partnerships in the region.

Why Japan? NATO and Japan will sign a new Individually Tailored Partnership Programme before the NATO Summit in Lithuania this July, but their relations have been on an upward trajectory for some time. Tokyo’s proactive use of multilateral platforms such as NATO and the Group of Seven (G7) to strengthen ties between the like minded countries of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific acquired added salience with the formation in 2022 of a new grouping of NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners, including Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. The heads of state of these four Indo-Pacific countries attended the June 2022 NATO Summit, and were also represented at the April 2023 Foreign Affairs’ Ministerial. In addition to discussing shared interests on issues of global significance like the shift of power to Asia and maritime security, NATO believes that ‘Political dialogue ensures that NATO and its partners can enhance their mutual situational awareness on security developments in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions.’ The ‘Indo-Pacific four’ and NATO are also committed to stepping up practical cooperation in areas including cyberspace, new technology and countering disinformation. Given the distances involved and the tendency for challenges in NATO’s immediate geography to absorb attention, putting this agenda of dialogues and project implementation into practice will require dedicated resources and clear channels back to NATO’s headquarters in Brussels – not to mention regular presence in and close contact with Seoul, Canberra and Auckland. That will account for much of the work of the Asia-Pacific liaison office in Tokyo.  

There were two noteworthy reactions to the Nikkei report. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry commented ‘NATO’s continued eastward foray into the Asia-Pacific and interference in regional affairs will inevitably undermine regional peace and stability and stoke camp confrontation. This calls for high vigilance among regional countries.’ The Chinese-state affiliated Global Times expressed its opinion less prosaically, calling the office ‘a poisonous thorn sticking into Asia…The NATO liaison office in Japan is no longer a symbolic move but a substantial move to build a so-called security defence around China.’

The principles NATO is founded on – the right of states to determine their own foreign policy, and to exercise collective self-defence – happen to be the same principles that are held dear by the smaller nations of the Indo-Pacific.

There is no denying that the opening of a NATO regional liaison office in East Asia is an indicator of change in the global security environment. After 9/11, the opening of a Central Asia regional office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, reflected the geopolitical focus on – and a NATO mission in – Afghanistan. As the source of the identified terrorist threat moved westward, the Tashkent office closed while the regional office in Kuwait remained open. Today the ‘Indo-Pacific four’ are the relevant partnership grouping for facing what the alliance identified in its 2022 Strategic Concept as the challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) ‘stated ambitions and coercive policies’ to NATO interests, security and values. 

The second reaction, which might explain in part why NATO has been a little coy about this story, reflects different views among allies about the extent to which their China policy should have a transatlantic framing or run through NATO, and how to approach Indo-Pacific partnerships. The Indo-Pacific policies of Germany and the Netherlands, but not France, mention intensifying security cooperation through NATO’s ‘partnerships across the globe’ with countries in the region. George Beebe, a former Central Intelligence Agency official and now Director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute articulated a concern that the office could ‘exacerbate differences between the United States and some Europeans about how to deal with China.’ A separate concern mentioned by Beebe is that moving NATO into Asian Affairs is ‘likely to bring Russia and China even closer together into what could amount to a de facto alliance between the two of them against what they see as a common Western or NATO enemy’. 

In fact, far from contributing to these risks, the benefits of a liaison presence in the Indo-Pacific include new ways to mitigate them. The main benefit is improved common understanding of the situation in the region. A liaison office that works for all the allies in assessing and reporting developments there may also succeed in narrowing some of the perception gaps among them. Japan’s exposure to the Russian threat is another reason why Tokyo is a fitting location for the office, and will help allies keep abreast of the mingling of NATO’s challenges and threats from the PRC and Russia. The second benefit comes from helping to bind together the partners in the region that share Euro-Atlantic interests and offer the resources needed to stiffen the open international order against assault. As for whether it will encourage a PRC-Russian alliance, it seems unlikely that the presence of a liaison officer could have much impact. Besides, Beijing’s rhetoric about NATO as ‘the sewage of the Cold War’ suggests that ship may have sailed already. 

That brings us to a third benefit provided by a forward NATO presence, which is promoting understanding in Asia about NATO and what it represents. The flow of misleading information and vitriol about the alliance being spread to Asian audiences has increased with the Russian war against Ukraine and deterioration in PRC-Europe relations, suggesting the need to adapt NATO’s strategic communication to overcome hostile narratives. The good news is that the principles NATO is founded on – the right of states to determine their own foreign policy, and to exercise collective self-defence – happen to be the same principles that are held dear by the smaller nations of the Indo-Pacific. As with Europeans who came under Soviet domination during the Cold War, one legacy of the colonial experience in Asia is a firm commitment to defend national sovereignty against coercion by larger states. No-one likes a bully. The resonance of those principles, which are also rights guaranteed under the UN Charter, could be the basis for improving understanding and extending common ground between NATO and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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